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Mainstream, VOL LVII No 37 New Delhi August 31, 2019

Bukharin: The Great Humanist Revolutionary

Saturday 31 August 2019, by Anil Rajimwale


Nikolai Bukharin by Sobhanlal Datta Gupta; Seribaan, Bakhrahat, South 24 Parganas, West Bengal; 2019.

In the post-Soviet collapse period, there has been a growing search for alternatives to orthodox Marxism and for humanist and democratic forms of socialism. The long repressive Stalinist rule in the Soviet Union led to struggle against the gross distortions, questioning the methods totally contrary to the spirit and theory of scientific socialism. The distorted repressive machinery sought to exterminate the very revolutionaries who carried out the great Russian Revolution. It is a strange irony of history that a large number of honest and sincere revolutionaries fell victim to the repressive machine under Stalin, simply because they objected to the bureaucratisation of socialism or just for dissent.

The story of Nikolai Bukharin, both amazing and tragic, has been well documented, described and analysed by the outstanding scholar of Soviet Communism and of the Comintern archives, Dr Sobhanlal Datta Gupta, in the above-mentioned penetrating analysis of the Stalinist period. He has brought to light hidden facts and analysed them, which need to be assimilated to enrich theory of socialism.

Bukharin has emerged in history a prominent representative of humanisation of Soviet socialism. This becomes more important if one considers the following facts. He was a Polit-Bureau member of the RCP(B) both during Lenin’s and Stalin’s times. As such the difference in treatment of him by the two leaders at once becomes clear. Lenin regarded Bukharin as the leading theoretician and the darling of the Party. One suspects that high praise by Lenin only added to the suspicion of Bukharin under Stalin and hastened his death. This is a most heinous aspect of and a serious comment on the Stalinist distortion of socialism.

Search for Bukharin as a Great Theoretician-Leader

Bukharin was a brilliant theoretician of imperialism, Marxist philosophy and an economist of the transitional phase of Soviet socialism. He was thoroughly sincere and dedicated to the cause of the Revolution, Party and socialism in the Soviet Union. He was a key architect of the NEP after Lenin. From 1926 to 1929 he was the General Secretary of the Communist International. It was such a person who was arrested in 1937 and executed in 1938. This tragedy must force us to a deeper evaluation of the contradictions of existing socialism, and must lead to a deeper search for a true working class power.

The author has done an excellent job of sifting the materials and works of leading authorities on Bukharin, and has succeeded in rescuing Bukharin from obscurity, particularly for the Indian readers. This should constitute an inalienable part of the search for new socialism, especially in the 21st century. Among the authorities is the notable German scholar on Bukharin, Wladislaw Hedeler, who put the author in touch with the newly discovered Prison Manuscripts of Bukharin in the mid-1990s. Theodor Bergmann is another.

Nikolai Bukharin was rehabilitated as recently as in 1988 and absolved of his ‘crimes’. Memoirs of his wife, Anna Larina Bukharina, were published in 1988 in Russia and in the West in 1994. His Prison Manuscripts changed many of the traditional views about him, as thought provoking materials on philosophy, politics, culture and literature came to light. Between 1988 and 2005 there was an unprecedented spurt in books and articles on Bukharin. Interestingly, 1988 was also the year of his birth as well as the 50th year of his death.

There have been several assessments of Bukharin by various experts, among them Cohen, Roy Medvedev, Sidney Heitman, James White and others.

An important study on Bukharin came out in 1969 by George Katkov, The Trial of Bukharin. It provided details, among others, of the trial and the running battles with Vyshinsky, the infamous chief prosecutor, who was expert in simply sending the prisoners to their death. Bukharin was even accused of plotting to murder Lenin himself!

Uncovering Prison Works of Bukharin: the Strange Story

The author describes in detail the international conference on Bukharin held in Germany in 1988. Its proceedings were published in 1989. The articles, papers and documents of the volume are an extremely important source to under-stand Bukharin. They raise a number of questions including why at all Stalin moved against Bukharin. The author also refers to the book by Kozlov and Weitz titled Nikolai Bukahrin: A Centenary Appraisal, which re-evaluates Bukharin on several questions.

Opening up of the Soviet Archives during the Gorbachev period was an unprecedented democratic event. It helped the scholars and others to form a better and fuller picture of the operations of the centralised bureaucratic state of the Soviet Union, especially under Stalin. It provided a great opportunity to delve into the past of Bukharin as a great revolutionary and into the secrets of his persecution.

For the first time it became known that during the years of his prison life, that is 1937-38, he composed two unusual volumes of political and philosophical texts, an unfinished autobiographical novel and 187 poems. Together they constitute the Prison Manuscripts. Anna Larina Bukharina, his wife, has mentioned only some of the manuscripts written by Bukharin while he was imprisoned in the most infamous and fearsome Lubyanka Prison, in her autobiography This I Cannot Forget. This was because she came to know of the Prison Manuscripts only much later, as we shall see.

In her autobiography, Anna Bukharina published for the first time what is now known as ‘Bukahrin’s Testament’: “To a Future Generation of Party Leaders”. This Appeal was dictated to her just on the eve of his arrest in early 1937.

Bukharin’s unflinching faith in the future of socialism is clear from this Appeal, wherein he said that the allegation that he “wanted to destroy the achievement of October, to restore an unheard of obscenity. This is a lie...” (p. 20 of the present book)

In an interview to the New York Times of February 8, 1988, and to several other papers like the Washington Post, Anna Larina mentioned that Bukharin made her memorise the eight-paragraph-long Testament, and then destroyed it himself. She too languished in prison cells and internal exile as a ‘relative of the enemy of the state’. She would recite the Testament in her cell like a prayer, to drive it to deeper memory. She wrote it out for the first time from memory after Khrushchev came to power in 1956. (Details are available in several books and references to the interviews on the internet.)

Yet the publication of Anna Larina’s auto-biography did not lead to the coming to light of the Prison Manuscripts. Prof Sobhanlal Datta Gupta describes in detail the strange story of how the Manuscripts were unearthed. This itself is a commentary on the functioning of the highly centralised bureaucracy inaugurated by Stalin, and partly followed by the successive regimes. It was in 1937 that Bukharin was arrested; he worked on the Manuscripts during 1937-38. After his death they were kept in complete secrecy on Stalin’s orders, and were suppressed and forgotten. Anna Larina did not have any knowledge of the Manuscripts. They were preserved for decades in the Presidential archives of the Kremlin. In January 1992, that is, 54 years after Bukharin was shot (in 1938), the Soviet authorities handed over Bukharin’s Farewell Letter of January 15, 1938. It is through this letter that Anna came to know of the Manuscripts. Stephen Cohen, through a close friendship with Anna Larina Bukharina and her family and with an aide of Yeltsin could get the photocopies of the Manuscripts.

Due to the tireless efforts of Cohen, Hedeler, Ruth Stoljarowa and members of Bukharin’s family including his wife and daughter, it became possible to arrange the manuscripts in their chronological order and study their contents. The Manuscripts contain the following materials: 1) Socialism and Its Culture; 2) Philosophical Arabesques (Dialectical Sketches); 3) Transformation of the World. Poems on Century and Individuals (187 poems); 4) Concerning Some Questions of our Time; 5) Unfinished autobiographical novel How It All Began. He wrote at least four letters to Stalin and the aforementioned Farewell Letter to his wife. (p. 22)

They are extraordinary works, and of a high order, expressing intense and concentrated struggle to preserve the essence of the Revolution. The author of the book describes the conditions in which they were written: in Bukharin’s own hand in a badly lit room, the supply of paper being very short. He wrote them in the conditions of surveillance. With very few books or none, he had mostly to depend upon his own memory. The whole effort is unbelievable: it was a great effort by the person who emerges as a an outstanding thinker-philosopher in the most inhuman conditions; equally unbelievable is the fact that little attention has been paid to Bukharin’s contributions despite this history. Dr Sobhan draws attention to the fact that there is striking similarity with the conditions in which Gramsci’s Prison Notebooks were written. It was in 1937 that Gramsci was approaching his final days, and Bukharin was arrested the same year.

After Bukharin’s death the Manuscripts were sent to the archives, and were kept under layers of Stalinist bureaucratic secrecy. This was done under the orders of Stalin himself. It was a wonder that they survived at all, and could be retrieved and published. Fortunately that we can read the Manuscripts today, is a wonder in itself. It is an extraordinary history, really.

According to Dr Sobhan, Bukharin emerges in these Manuscripts as a theoretician of superstructure, and a defender of democracy and culture. He also emerges as an outstanding philosopher, novelist, poet. He does not remain just a Marxist theoretician of imperialism and an economist. He emphasises the role of ideology and consciousness in building socialism. He is also known as the one who worked out the blueprint of the NEP. Bukharin’s works composed in the prison show him as a mature thinker. His philosophical depth is amazing. Bukharin is one of the very few in the world to have negotiated the dialectics of Hegel. Very few people have read Hegel at all, and Stalin certainly did not read him and could not master dialectics. At the most Stalin represented mechanical materialism.

Bukharin, the Dialectical Philosopher

Bukharin’s Philosophical Arabesques is among the most amazing philosophical works, showing great depth. It is an irony of history that such profound defence of Marxist dialectics and socialism had to be made in the repressive prison of a distorted revolution! Here Marxist philosophy and dialectics directly confront the repressive bureaucratic socialist regime.

The ‘Arabesques’ is a complex posture in ballet, representing a position of unequal equilibrium. It can also be interpreted as a kind of equilibrium in motion. “Both can be related to Bukharin’s own theoretical position vis-à-vis the system he was confronting”, comments Dr Sobhan. (p. 27) According to the Introduction to the Russian edition, written by Ogurzov, had this work been known earlier, the very horizons of Marxist philosophical thinking would have been quite different. It is a work which is dialectical from beginning to the end, as has been clarified by Bukharin himself.

Some of the important points made in the Arabesques are: 1) Subjectivity as against mechanical objectivity. 2) Reading Hegel as a materialist in relation to Kant, because the former was an objectivist through and through. 3) The Philosophical Arabeques underlines the importance of Lenin’s Philosophical Notebooks in contrast to his Materialism and Empirio-criticism. The Notebooks focused on dialectics, the Empirio-criticism on materialism.

The ‘Arabesques’ was a break from Bukharin’s earlier positions in the Soviet philosophical debates. His outlook was considerably different from the official Soviet positions, and as such was quite significant. It was unconventional, contributing to an alternative understanding to the existing Marxism. It was a culminating point in his philosophical evolution. In the debates in the 1920s between the mechanists, Deborinites and reductionists, Bukharin tended to side with mechanists. But later on, he evolved decisively as a dialectician. The mechanists were opposed by Deborin and others. Alexander Bogdanov was among the prominent figures of the mechanist school of philosophy. Bukharin played a crucial role in these debates.

That was the period when the Party and state bureaucracy increasingly limited and even strangulated free development of philosophical thoughts. Philosophy was forced into the service of what Althusser has called ‘the ideological state’. Philosophy was relevant and correct only if it served the official and practical purpose of the ruling elite. Thus healthy development of thought, ideology and philosophy was stunted, and scholars were forced pay lip-service to the ‘correctness’ and ‘infallibility’ of philosophy/thoughts under and by Stalin. Stalin was presented as the ‘philosopher’, the true disciple of Marx and Lenin, who could make no mistake. His superficial mechanical materialism was presented as the ‘real’ dialectical materialism, and his history as the real history. Stalin was lifted on to the same pedestal as that of Marx and Lenin. Stalinism was taken to the absurd extremes in philosophy and sciences, calling for its application in agriculture, as advanced by Lysenko, and ‘proletarian purity in physics and mathematics’.

Bukharin was a die-hard optimist, as is evident from the details provided by the author. In the early years of the Revolution, Bukharin laid much emphasis on the subject as represented by the collective working class. Construction of socialism demanded cooperation, balance and equilibrium instead of violence and confrontation. His position was futuristic and deterministic. It was rooted in the optimism of the Revolution, which endeavoured to build socialism in the country.

The author deals with the early works by Bukharin, such as the ABC of Communism (1920) and Historical Materialism. Bukharin developed much ahead in the subsequent years, enriching Marxist theory. In Historical Materialism, he already deals with the growing role of superstructure, but recognises the autonomy of superstructure “within the overarching framework of determinism” symbolised by the primacy of the productive forces. (p. 103)

Dr Sobhan underlines the fact that Bukharin in his work of 1933 titled Marx’s Teaching and its Historical Significance makes a fundamental departure from his earlier works. It was published on the occasion of the 50th anniversary of Marx’s death. This work underlines the active role of the subject. There is a major shift in Bukharin’s position.

‘Encountering Philosophical Arabesques’ is a crucial section of Dr Sobhan’s present book. It brings to light several new and profound aspects of Bukharin, and we have much to learn from it. It covers a range of philosophical questions, including Western and Indian philosophy. It is directed against mechanical materialism as well as subjective idealism. The book aims at strengthening the defence of materialist dialectics as the foundation of Marxist philosophy. In fact very few Marxists have attempted this: in general they have only ‘defended’ materialism against idealism. Bukharin points out that voluntarism and irrationalism contribute to the rise of fascism.

The Arabesques manuscripts contain 40 chapters of high philosophical value. It is difficult to imagine how Bukharin could write such an extraordinary work even without sources at hand and only using his imagination, in the prison. Then to think of the fact that this very person is shot by Stalin’s henchmen in the name of defence of ‘socialism’!

Emphasising the importance of Lenin’s Philosophical Notebooks, Bukharin is critical of subjective idealism, of Kant and of solipsism. There cannot be any absolute self to the exclusion of the objective world, and Bukharin situates the subject in a relational context. In an interesting approach, he dismisses the Kantian ‘thing-in-itself’ and glorifies Hegel for showing that the self or the subject (the Spirit) realises its own self only through ‘self-objectification’. Thus Bukharin makes a materialist reading of Hegel. Bukharin made the significant statement that though idealist, Hegel was an extreme objectivist and as such stood on the verge of materialism.

Bukharin refers to Lenin’s materialist reading of Hegel, and focuses on the dialectical nature of the latter’s Philosophical Notebooks. 

It is interesting to note that Bukharin makes a detailed exposition of Indian philosophy in Chapter 25 of the Arabesques. He makes the vital point that due to the stagnation of the material culture, the so-called supernatural powers of the Brahmins were developed. A ‘gigantic culture of the will’ replaced the material world. This led to a concentration of attention on the person, and not on the objects of the external world. The will was placed under stress in order to overcome it. The non-logic of the spiritual life was emphasised instead of the culture of thought as such. (p. 124)

Bukharin contrasts this mysticism of India and the east with the life of capitalism, which is irrational, yet is rationalised down to the most trivial details. Life is turned into a universal tactic, leading to an impoverishment of life and the hypertrophy of the intellectual and the emotional. This is a real one-sidedness of humanity under capitalism. (Ibid.)

Legacy of Nikolai Bukharin

Bukharin and his works have been ignored even after revelations about his repression. The author of the book makes certain observations worth pondering. Despite his contributions on subjectivity and consciousness, Bukharin has not found place alongside such theoreticians of the superstructure as Rosa Luxemburg, Gramsci, Lukacs and Karl Korsch.

The reasons are manifold, according to the author. He has been looked upon as the theorist of official Marxism. The author also advances the proposition whether Bukharin praised Stalin in his last works to appease him and seek release from the prison. This is a difficult question, and a tragic act. We cannot judge when Bukharin and many others went through the worst kind of tortures and humiliations.

Undoubtedly, the kind of Marxism propounded by Bukharin was of a different kind from that of Gramsci, Korsch or Lukacs. Besides, he quite often sided with Stalin in the campaigns against opponents like Trotsky and others. This prevented him being recognised as the representative of dissent within Marxism. Yet, he had to fight the distortions from within, a very difficult job indeed.

As the author clarifies, “One major purpose of this book is the exploration of this other Bukharin, traces of which are to be found in terms of the subtle shifts in his thinking.” (p. 128) Dr Sobhan has succeeded to a considerable extent in fulfilling the purpose. He has done a fine job of bringing to light the creative contributions of Bukharin.

The author has taken Grover Furr as the extreme case of official Marxism, who justifies every act of Stalin. In his two books on the Stalin period, Furr appears as a totally blind supporter of the crimes committed by Stalin and is utterly one-sided, so much so that it often becomes difficult to take him seriously. His arguments are on the whole devoid of rational logic.

Besides Nikolai Bukharin: The Last years, Roy Medvedev has done fine work on Bukharin in his Let History Judge (1989), a balanced contribution. He says that Bukharin’s policies were direct continuation of Lenin’s.

Dr Sobhan rightly states that for those who advocate an alternative version of Marxism, grounded in democracy and freedom, “the problem is no less complex”. (p. 129) The periods of long silence were followed by sudden boom in studies related to him, to be followed again by a fall in attention to him. The fall of the Soviet Union changed the ambience and context. The spirit gained after the fall of the Soviet Union actually led to a spurt in ‘Stalin nostalgia’. This created further problems for the studies on Bukharin.

Opinions are divided, says the author, as to whether Bukharin’s views were a liberal alternative to Stalinism. As per the views of the author, Bukharin’s importance lay in the fact that he was directly associated with the Revolution and with the construction of the socialist society. His was an insider’s view, containing a critique of the regime and attempting an alternative. For others like Gramsci and Lukacs, the Revolution was more of an abstract nature and their critiques were from a distance.

As the author says, the Prison Notebooks cannot be studied in isolation, but together with his ideas on the NEP and other issues. “By constructing this other Bukharin, he can be taken out of the tradition of the mainstream-ism and incorporated into the legacy of those dissenters who ventured to disagree, if not think differently.” (p. 134)

The book contains very important chapters on a study of Bukharin vis-à-vis War Communism and NEP. They contain rich material on the oretical and practical struggles between Lenin, Stalin, Trotsky, in particular Bukharin, and others.

Need to Revive Bukharin

At a time when a humanised and democratic version of socialism with healthy flowering of dissent and debate is being discussed as the ‘21st century socialism’, the study of Bukharin’s works assumes greater importance. He worked and fought for the humanist ideals of the Revolution and socialism in the most complicated and difficult conditions. Repressions under the monopoly finance capitalist system is understandable and natural, but it is far more complicated to oppose the unexpected repressive regimes under socialist bureaucracies. Bukharin and others like him must be credited with the fight for humanism in the conditions of degeneration of the Revolution, without wavering from the ideals of socialism. The recognition will be a great tribute to him that he wrote such outstanding works in the most adverse, hostile and distorted conditions without losing hope. That he could get some recognition only long after Stalin’s death is a commentary on the bureaucratic distortion of the Revolution and socialism. Bukharin’s works need to be revived, particularly in the present context of great changes, necessitating upgrading and democratisation of the concept of socialism.

The present book by Dr Sobhanlal Datta Gupta goes a long way to help in this endeavour.

The reviewer is a Marxist ideologue.

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